Published on 16th November, 2014, in the Mid-Day.
In popular understanding, Arjuna is considered the hero of the Mahabharata, primarily because he receives the wisdom of the Gita from Krishna. In the Gita, Krishna uses grand adjectives to address Arjuna, such as Sabhyasachi (one who is ambidextrous, i.e. can skilfully use both his left and right hand), Gudakesha (one who has overcome slumber) and Dhananjaya (one who brings prosperity). However, the epic itself does not paint a flattering picture of Arjuna:
– His biological father is Indra, who despite being king of paradise, god of the sky, leader of the devas, and wielder of the thunderbolt, is eternally insecure about kings, sages and demons usurping his throne.
– The prowess of a tribal youth called Ekalavya in archery makes him so insecure that to calm him down his teacher, Drona, tricks the tribal youth to chop away his thumb.
– The archery skill of Karna so aggravates him that he keeps mocking Karna as the son of a charioteer.
– Without protest, he gives in to his mother’s wishes and shares his wife, Draupadi, won at an archery competition, with his four brothers.
– In his adventures, he marries many other women such as Chitrangada, but dares not bring them back home out of deference to, or fear of, his first wife Draupadi.
– Yet, with a little encouragement from Krishna, he marries and brings back home Krishna’s own sister, Subhadra, but leaves it to her to worm her way into Draupadi’s heart.
– He needs Krishna’s encouragement to set aflame the forest of Khandava, a feat for which he is gifted the Gandiva bow by the grateful fire-god, Agni.
– He is unable to stand up against his elder brother Yudhishtira when the latter gambles away their kingdom and their common wife in the gambling hall of the Kauravas.
– He does not come to Draupadi’s rescue when Kauravas drag her by the hair and try to disrobe her in public.
– He is taught a lesson in humility by a tribal or Kirata, who turns out to be Shiva, during a boar hunt.
– He is castrated when he rejects the sexual advances of the apsara, Urvashi, on grounds that she was married to his ancestors; Indra comes to his son’s rescue and limits the curse to one year.
– He refuses to help Draupadi from the sexual advances of Kichaka during the year the Pandavas live disguised as servants in the kingdom of Matsya.
– He defeats the entire Kaurava army singlehandedly only when he is disguised as the eunuch-dancer Brihanalla and saving the kingdom of Matsya and its prince, Uttara, but he cannot do the same in Kuru-kshetra.
– He has a nervous breakdown just when war is about to be declared between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, which gives Krishna the chance to finally reveal the Gita. They were friends before but still Krishna never shared his ideas before: for you never give knowledge to someone who is not ready to receive it.
– Even after hearing the Gita, Arjuna is unable to kill Bhisma, Jayadhrata, and Karna until Krishna intervenes with more wisdom or a strategy.
– He does not kill a single Kaurava at Kuru-kshetra; Bhima kills them all.
– He has a huge fight with Yudhishtira in the middle of the war when the latter insults his bow; Krishna has to intervene to restore peace.
– When he dies, he goes to hell because he spent his life being boastful, proud and disdainful of other archers.